July 7, 2010 / 10:06 AM / in 9 years

Book Talk: John Verdon uses retirement to hone new skills

SYDNEY (Reuters Life!) - When advertising executive John Verdon retired 15 years ago at the age of 53, he was looking forward to trying something new so first turned his hand to making furniture then three years ago started to write a novel.

Little did Verdon realize that his debut book, a thriller called “Think of a Number,” would receive rave reviews and be translated into 19 languages with $1 million of advance sales before its official release this month.

Verdon, now 68, wrote “Think of a Number” after he and his wife packed up their lives in New York City and moved to rural upstate New York — rather like his novel’s protagonist, retired NYPD homicide investigator Dave Gurney.

Gurney and his wife are starting out on a new life when letters start arriving to people in the mail that end with a simple declaration: “Think of any number ... picture it ... now see how well I know your secret.”

Those who comply find the letter writer has predicted their random choice exactly and the letters quickly ignite a massive serial murder investigation.

Verdon spoke to Reuters about his life’s sea-change:

Q: You’ve certainly kept busy since retiring?

A: “For me the idea of retirement and stopping work never had much appeal but I saw it as a chance to do something completely different. I had never really done anything with my hands before and I wanted to do something completely different so I made furniture for a number of years but after 10 years of doing that I decided to try something else. I had always had this desire to write a novel in the back of my head.”

Q: Had you written much before?

A: “In a way yes. When I was in school I had an English teacher who said I ought to be a writer and through school and college I wrote some terrible poetry. But after college I went into advertising and worked in that field for 30 years. I did write ads and so forth.”

Q: What made you turn to mysteries?

A: “I had started reading a lot of British crime stuff and I fell in love with the books of Reginald Hill. That led me to Colin Dexter and writers like that. It occurred to me that was the kind of book I would like to write — a mystery but a well written mystery. I had a few ideas rattling around in my head.”

Q: Was the main character meant to reflect you?

A: “When I started writing the book was very plot driven but once I started to get into it more it became more character driven and more about the detective. The whole story started to echo my own life. The more I worked on it the more I realized there were huge areas of my own experience and life working their way into it.”

Q: Did you have a publisher lined up before you started?

A: “No. When I finished I had no real expectation that it would be published. I was really writing it for my wife. But when it was done I thought I might as well have a go so sent out a one page letter to a list of literary agents. Virtually all of them rejected me but then one agent called me up and was interested in seeing the manuscript. Two days later she rang back and said she had not yet finished reading it but she loved it and don’t show it to anyone else. A couple of weeks later she sold the book to Random House and the most amazing things started happening.”

Q: What happened next?

A: “Random House liked it so much they gave me a contract to write two more books with the only real stipulation being that they are about the same detective and his life. Apparently many people who read the book got intrigued by the marriage in it and what goes on between him and his wife. Now that has become the main central thing.”

Q: With this success, do you think you should have started writing earlier in your life?

A: “I am kind of staggered by the whole thing to be honest. But I don’t think I could have written the book when I was younger. I am not sure that I would have been able to describe the nature of a relationship, a marriage, that could go on for so long. Maybe I had to be old to write it.”

Q: What was the hardest part of writing the book?

A: “My own insecurities about whether I was doing anything that was any good. You work on it and it gets bigger and bigger but the hard thing is your own fear that it will be a waste of time. The writing itself for me is a pleasure, an activity that I like and I always have, even when I was writing advertising stuff.”

Q: What was the biggest lesson about writing that you have learnt in the process?

A: “My first manuscript I think probably moved a bit slowly and my first draft was about 500 pages when it was submitted. The final version ended up being about 400 pages and the reduction has not lost anything but gained a lot. With the second book I have absorbed some of that. It may be a failing of other writers too as well as myself that we like to write so much that we write too much. It almost always pays to take words out.”

Reporting by Belinda Goldsmith, Editing by Paul Casciato

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